“Twelfth Night” spreads enchantment, romance, and comedy for the season

1819
Jeffrey M. Bender and Tarah Flanagan on stage
Jeffrey M. Bender and Tarah Flanagan. Photo by Sarah Haley
Billie Wyatt and Cedric Lamar sitting on a bench
Billie Wyatt and Cedric Lamar. Photo by Sarah Haley

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey closes its season with a holiday confection, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night. This tale of mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, and foolishness in all its guises is presented in an incandescent production on the stage of the F.M. Kirby Theatre at Drew University in Madison. The Shakespeare Theatre offers a welcome and needed gift, and one would be foolish to refuse it.

Shakespeare’s comedy, written for the Twelfth Night Eve festivals hosted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601, is set in the near-mythical dukedom of Illyria. Viola (Eliana Rowe) comes ashore after a shipwreck in which she lost her twin brother Sebastian (Jeffrey Marc Alkins). Disguising herself as a young man, “Cesario,” she takes up a position in the court of Duke Orsino (Jon Barker).

Orsino is sick with love for a rich young widow, Olivia (Billie Wyatt), who is starting a seven-year mourning period for her recently deceased father and brother. This is a concern for most of her household: uncle Sir Toby Belch (Jeffrey M. Binder), a drunkard and scoundrel; his latest dupe, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Patrick Toon), who is led to believe himself a viable candidate for Olivia’s hand; lady’s maid Maria (Tarah Flanagan); footman Fabian (Ty Lane); and recently returned court fool Feste (Cedric Lamar). The staff is under the often-disapproving eye of Malvolio (Robert Cuccioli), a puritanical sort who harbors a secret passion for his mistress. Orsino sends “Cesario” to plead his romantic cause to Olivia — who finds herself entranced by this attractive, gracious young man and begins making her own romantic overtures to “him.” 

Maria, Toby, Andrew, Feste, and Fabian, stung once too much by the overbearingly prudish Malvolio, collude in a plot to make him think Olivia does love him — a conclusion that comes to him all too quickly once he receives a cryptic love note written by Maria in Olivia’s handwriting. 

Rescued by the fugitive sea captain Antonio (Dino Curia), Sebastian also arrives on the Illyrian coast, believing Viola to be dead. On meeting Olivia, Sebastian is easily persuaded by her into a secret marriage. This being a Shakespearean comedy, once all the players are finally in one place, all is resolved — almost. 

Billie Wyatt kneeling in front of Eliana Rowe.
Eliana Rowe and Billie Wyatt. Photo by Sarah Haley

The cast, under the inspired direction of Jason King Jones, successfully brings the audience into a clearer understanding of Shakespeare’s plots and entanglements. They are perfect as lovers, liars, and clowns, and in this, they are aided by the lyrical set of designer Brittany Vasta and the beautifully lush costumes of Hugh Hanson. Adding to the enjoyment of the play are the interpolated Middle-Ages-styled songs composed by Cedric Lamar set to lyrics originally written by Shakespeare.

Twelfth Night is a transcendent finale of the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ’s season, a theatrical gift designed to lighten the heart and bring remembrances of one’s own follies of love. It is splendid and joyous, a welcome and worthy addition to this year’s array of holiday entertainments. I cannot more strongly urge you to make the trip to Madison to see this lyrical production of Twelfth Night!

Twelfth Night is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through January 1, 2023.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600. Certain performances require masks, while others make mask-wearing optional; check with the box office when you order your tickets regarding the masking policy for your performance.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.